08/26/2010 10:11 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's Okay for Women to Have a Mid-Life Crisis

Most of the criticism I have heard about the movie Eat, Pray, Love has been around Elizabeth Gilbert as a person, not the merits of the production or her book. One person said she reeked of "Privilege, Privilege, Privilege" as if securing a level of success means questioning what is missing in your life is gluttony.

These reviewers have not read Abraham Maslow's work.

It makes sense that Gilbert would have an identity trauma when others think she should be singing her gratitude for the opportunities life has given her. Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology and remembered for his "hierarchy of human needs" said every person has a strong desire to realize their potential. Once they get their basic needs of safety, stability, love, and status met, they begin to crave a sense of personal understanding and harmony with life.

If life is not full of meaningful, joy-filled moments, then something is terribly wrong. Material possessions can't fill in the void. If you think your relationships will complete you, you are disappointed.

In my research with high-achieving women, I found this yearning could surface at any age and it rarely felt good. The urge to know what life is all about and to accomplish something greater than what they had done so far left them feeling restless about their future and discontent with the present. Just when life should clearly provide them with answers, they felt lost, even suffocated by their circumstances.

Unfortunately, many of the women told me they didn't take time to know themselves better but instead, they went from job to job and sometimes from relationship to relationship in search of the elusive "something more." They drowned themselves in a sea of to-do lists and spent spent late-night moments of reflection planning exit strategies instead of learning how to articulate their desires. The more they wandered, the more likely they were to lose their sense of purpose and possibly, their sense of self.

"I'm running out of options," Kali, age 39, told me. "I start a job with great anticipation, move up quickly, and then somewhere along the line, I wake up with this gnawing sense that it's over. The work isn't meaningful anymore. So I start making plans to leave."

One of the factors that fuels this internal conflict is that these women--some privileged, some not--were raised to believe as smart, strong girls they would grow up to accomplish great things. This is a wonderful message to give girls, and the first time in history we are teaching this story to young women around the globe. Yet if you tie your identity to your accomplishments and recognition, then there are days when the applause isn't there. You feel lost--even a failure--in the midst of your success.

That is why I think Eat, Pray, Love is a great metaphor for the quest we are on. Gilbert's journey sheds light on what is stirring our agitation and what might calm our souls.

I found the following quote from a review by Becca on the blog OMG BEX

Most obviously, this book is about independence and self-care, even if it highlights these qualities in ways not accessible to most women... A woman may not be able to travel to Italy to eat pasta and practice Italian, but she can still take pleasure in savoring delicious food without worrying so much about calories and in learning new things just to learn them. She may not be able to stay at an ashram in India, but she can still find personal power and peace in meditation, even benefiting from the techniques Gilbert describes. She may not have access to Bali beaches and a Brazilian lover, but she can still take from Gilbert's stories ideas about what it means to find balance in her life and the people she allows into it.

I would add that when we come face to face with this "mid-life crisis" that we talk to friends about our experience without shame. One of the worst things busy women do is put their friendships on the back burner. There is no need to "tough it out on your own." Find a friend who is also interested in personal development who won't judge the struggle you are experiencing. A good coach can help as well.

Don't let people tell you that you have no right to be unhappy with your life. It is okay to question your life's purpose. It's okay to say, "I don't know who I am." It's okay to lose your equilibrium when others think your life is smooth sailing. You lose yourself to find yourself. It is better to ask the questions and seek the answers than to live a numb life. Ask Laura Berman Fortgang who wrote The Little Book on Meaning. Your sense of purpose might be easier to find than you think.

After apologizing to my massage therapist for my string of complaints about my life, he said to me. "You think you are bad because so many people suffer from having no food and doctors. Because you aren't struggling to survive, you can now attend to the greater questions in life. This is how you help humanity evolve. Learn from your pain and share it with others. That is a noble purpose."

Thank you Elizabeth Gilbert for learning and then sharing your lessons with your fellow wanderers.

Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D. is the author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. She is a professional coach, speaker and leadership trainer who works with a variety of people and organizations around the world.